Elizabeth Wilson / Visual Culture

Cultural Passions: Reading the Tarot

Tarot reading is a culturally marginalised activity,  yet it is an experience that still attracts educated secular intellectuals. So what’s the appeal?

Reading the Tarot

Madam Sosotris, famous clairvoyante
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe
With a wicked pack of cards.

T. S. Eliot

During a brief hippy period, a friend introduced me to the tarot. I was soon laying out Celtic Cross and triangular spreads, using the Waite Rider pack. This was designed in 1909 by the artist Pamela Colman Smith, influenced by the occultist A. E. Waite, and reflects the general interest at the close of the Victorian period in The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most influential group to emerge from the occult revival at that time. Every card is pictorial, unlike the more traditional packs, such as the Tarot de Marseille, in which only the ‘Major Arcana, (the cards special to the divinatory tarot) are illustrated, while the ‘Minor Arcana’, have numbered suits like ordinary playing cards – except that the suits are Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles instead of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs. The colourful, aesthetically attractive images of the Rider pack, with their Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau medievalism, excited my imagination, as well as reminding me, in my fortune telling capacity, of their divinatory and spiritual meanings.

No one admits to taking fortune-telling seriously. Yet seers were once revered and even today an ambiguity surrounds the practice. For those who take it seriously, it comes with its own sacred legends.

Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett have written an exhaustive two-volume history of the tarot. In the second volume particularly, A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870–1970, they describe how a whole fake history of the tarot was constructed by a series of nineteenth-century occultists who claimed to trace its legend back as far as ancient Egypt. It is not always clear how much these fantasists believed their own inventions, but for many the manufactured legends were as compelling as those of Christianity. The Waite Rider pack draws on these as well as referencing Egyptian, Christian and Greek myths and legends.

I do not believe it is possible to foretell the future, but, as a friend put it, the cards can be a useful way of thinking about your problems. The images act, like Rorschach test cards, as a trigger for thoughts and ideas about a dilemma. Even when fortune-telling is at its most demotic, on a resort pier, there is a sense of ritual that can range from something almost sinister to a form of meditation, in either sense a distinct practice.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, I gave occasional ‘readings’ at fund-raising events. In the earlier period these were for feminist causes, later at school jumble sales, but at none of these events was I ever short of customers. There was, naturally, a degree of disavowal, but the tarot was never quite seen as just a bit of fun. I dusted down skills I had once learned as a mental health worker and was soon hearing of domestic misery, occupational redundancies and anxious hopes for a different future. On more than one occasion my ‘client’ asked if she might consult me privately and at greater length, evidently assuming that I was an established clairvoyant. This was disconcerting and I eventually gave up the fundraising altogether, worried about the ethics of the enterprise, yet these requests convinced me that were I to set myself up in Camden

Lock Market or the seafront at Brighton I would without doubt be able to make additional income without much effort. The idea even attracted me. Freudian psychoanalysis, after all, originally came with the trappings of the dubious, almost the occult, dark thoughts swimming up out of the great ocean of the unconscious. I never made predictions; I simply used my observational and interviewing skills to try to find out what the person opposite me needed to talk about and what might help her. Anyone, after all, may perfectly legally set themselves up as a psychotherapist, regardless of whether they have any relevant training or not. Yet in my case might it not be unethical because while my commentary could prove helpful, was it not also deceitful since I did not believe in spiritualism or that I was a psychic?

So I did not pursue the idea of a new career as a clairvoyant. It could only be done if you did take it seriously, and devoted time and energy to sharpening the skills of observation and intuition on which it depends. You would effectively become a therapist, but one without the support of the Association of Psychotherapists or the British Psychoanalytical Association. (There may be a society of clairvoyants – and the Order of the Golden Dawn now has a website – but I felt no desire to venture into any occult community.)

Nevertheless, the appeal of the tarot still draws me back. To hold and spread the cards is to enter a marginal space at the border between the imaginative and the real. The images act as a gateway to the different perception of emotions. You do not have to believe in the occult to see in the allegorical depictions of power, love, despair and expectation and hope a different mirror for your life, in that space between play and hidden meaning.

It may be that it attracts the non-religious by reason of its ability to suggest an ‘enchanted realm’ outside the iron cage while, unlike the established religions, not imposing a rigidly prescribed set of moral doctrines. In the 1980s, I was quite surprised by how many feminists referred to their astrological star signs (I’m a Virgo, you know, so…) and I should therefore not have been surprised to read the obituary of psychic astrologer Henrietta Llewelyn Davies in The Telegraph (20 May 2011). She claimed to have psychic powers (she would often hear voices), she studied astrology in India and wrote horoscopes for a number of women’s and other magazines. She was consulted by well-known women novelists and by lawyers and would give advice on any subject, from how to lead a better life to what car to buy. The Telegraph publishes comments on its obituaries; the 17 on this one were almost uniformly hostile. They were contemptuous of educated people who could believe ‘dark ages superstition’. Several made the connection with organised religion, pointing out that an obituary of Archbishop Rowan Williams should be criticised on the same grounds. Some blamed the education system for making possible such credulity.

This leaves unanswered the question why educated secular intellectuals are attracted to this kind of ‘magical’ realm. For me, a non-believer, all myths are on a par. If they are imaginative and beautiful, if they resonate, then they may be valuable, but should not be misunderstood as any kind of literal truth. In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong makes a similar case for Christianity. She suggests that as a result of its encounter with science over the centuries Christianity itself became pseudo-scientific, believers reading the Bible for ‘facts about God’ and insisting on its literal truth. For her, by contrast, religion is a practice, a discipline, one that ‘cultivates a perception based on imagination and empathy’, and which, ‘backed up by ritual and … practice, can … still produce the sense of transcendence that gives meaning to [practitioners’] lives’. Religion as she describes it becomes an imaginative and receptive state that might equally be induced by art. It is essentially about feeling and God is, as Ludwig Feuerbach, the nineteenth-century German philosopher observed, a projection of human feeling. If it resonates, it has an emotional truth, and whether its stories are actually true or not is beside the point. This is postmodern religion, in which the truth or otherwise of its propositions is irrelevant. It is simply a receptive state that might equally be induced by art. It should follow that gazing at the tarot is as valid (or invalid) as Christian observance, although I wonder if Armstrong would agree that to practice the tarot is similar to following an established and powerful religion.

So, from the perspective of Karen Armstrong, it is hard to see why, if faith and belief are essentially subjective, a conviction of the power of the occult or the existence of ghosts or being a Judy Garland fan is not as valid as believing in the Trinity, why it is not as valuable to read Marcel Proust as the Bible. This is not a defence of subjectivism as such, merely the observation that all sets of beliefs in the supernatural, whether socially endorsed or not, fall at the hurdle of reason and evidence; conversely many, if not all, include myths and imaginings that may stir the imagination, clarify understanding and by their use of metaphor illuminate. Nostalgia too may be more like a projection on to the past of the longing for transcendence than merely a form of sentimentality. ■

Cultural PassionsElizabeth Wilson is the author Cultural Passions: Fans, Aesthetes and Tarot Readers, of which the above article is an extract. Her other books include Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity and Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts (both I.B.Tauris), as well as Hallucinations and The Sphinx in the City. She has also published a series of crime novels, The Twilight Hour, War Damage and The Girl in Berlin. She is currently Visiting Professor of Cultural Studies, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London.

Image courtesy of Emily Davis.

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